Faith and Study,  Learning,  Philosophy of Education,  Philosophy of Mind

How to be a Life Long Learner

One of my teachers at school used to joke about slow students. “You’re going to be here with a white beard one day” he’d say. I don’t quite have a white beard yet but I am certainly not done in the classroom. Learning, once you catch the bug, is pretty hard to stop doing.

We are all life-longer learners. In fact, the longer we think of ourselves as learners, the better. I’d rather be still asking difficult questions when I finally get a white beard than think I know it all already. If you want to keep learning here are some tips:

Read something you don’t understand. This sounds nuts, but I live by this. If I read  only the things that I understand or that are only slightly above my head I won’t learn much. So I try to read ambitiously. If I don’t get it, I read it all. Then I read something related to it and read it again. Some day I either move on or, on those days when study seems glorious, I get it. There is nothing quite like getting it. It is like climbing a mountain, running a marathon, doing something great. It feels good and all the work seems worth it.

Power is not based on age, environment or upbringing. By power, I mean mental capacity. We live in such a materialist culture. We presume minds are like machines: they run down and run out and there’s nothing anyone can do about it. While there is some truth to this–bodies get old–that does not determine the capacity of a person to learn. I think it is God who determines what you learn. He gives you knowledge and the capacity to grasp it. Trust him, devote your mind to him. He is not bothered by the curmudgeonly materialist who tells you that you’re too old for this; you’re obsolete.  And this goes for other factors materialists point to: environment, upbringing, social class, race or anything else.

Starting my degree at Moody Bible Institute ( I was 34)

Learning is a good deed. I have heard it many times from students who say something like: I can’t wait to be done so I can do something. It is as if learning reduces to preparation and preparation is really more like waiting, like a greyhound in a trap waiting for the start gun. But that’s all on its head. Learning is doing. It is an act of discovery no less exhilarating than searching  for lost treasure. For the Christian, learning is one of the good deeds that the Lord prepared in advance for you to do (Eph 2:10). 

Follow your nose. Learning is somewhat like searching for something and not really knowing what you are searching for. All you do know is that you’ll know it when you see it. That kind of looking only comes with “bump,” an internal sense of direction that tells you “go left” for some reason. If you are in any formal learning program a syllabus charts your course, but to really learn you have to go off piste.

Don’t strive for distinction. Some people think that there is only a point to learning if you are going to be a genius. Somehow Hollywood versions of people who like to learn are exclusively geniuses who change the whole world. It feeds our deepest depraviltiy – that there is only any point to anything if you can be the best. Of course, some people will actually turn out to be the best but most of us won’t. The only thing that prevents us doing anything is our pride, our love of distinction. Distinction: phooey! I say. I should care less about the approval of the world and more about using my mind in worship to the Lord. And God will use even the least of us to change the world. He just has to break our pride. 
Love it!! Some things are just a drag to read. But don’t be too surprised if something you thought you hated at school turns out to be something fascinating in later life. Just because you didn’t like math the first time round doesn’t mean you won’t develop a love for it later. And just because you were no good at it then does not mean you won’t be able to do it now! With love comes motivation and enough of that will get you further in algebra than the college sophomore who has forgotten all about x+y=z.

Herein lies another myth of learning: that only those who start early should bother. I always heard this about musicians. If you don’t pick it by the time you’re 8, do something else. Now, perhaps the greatest violin player in the world might have started before he or she was able to speak but that does not mean you and I should never start something at 40. It goes back to your motives: do you want to be the best so you get all the applause or do you want to learn for the glory of God and the good of others?

Share it with a friend. Knowledge carries with it the desire to share. To keep learning it helps to talk to others about it. There is nothing quite like sharing an excitement with a friend over something, learning no less that sport. I have a friend. We call each other and talk about what we are reading. It’s cool.

Okay, that’s it. I’ve got only a month to complete a bucketload of assignments so my posting may be less frequent. But may you one day still be asking questions, still learning even if every hair has gone grey.

Assistant Professor of Philosophy and History of Ideas at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and The College at Southeastern.